Joan Hickman talks about living in Evanston before desegregation

Updated: Jul 10


"And she said, ‘Joan, no, no, no, don’t go that way, you want to go this way.’

Because I’m headed toward the lake. So I said, ‘No, I live this way. ‘

No you don’t, you live this way,’ she said."

I interviewed Joan Hickman as part of Piven Theatre Workshop and Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre’s collaboration, "A Home on the Lake", which explores--through a fictional story partly informed and inspired by Dear Evanston's interviews with Evanston residents--the history of race and property in Evanston and the concept of home. The play was co-written by Tim Rhoze and Stephen Fedo and runs through June 3.

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DE will be doing talkbacks on May 10, May 17, and May 31 following the play.

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​​Joan Hickman is a longtime resident of Evanston and deeply involved in the community. She is the younger sister of Bennett Johnson whose interview you can read here.

We talked at Curt's Cafe South and Joan told me about her life, and about living in Evanston during the years of segregation. This is an excerpt from our interview.

For several years, Joan, Bennett, and their older sister Ethelyne Baker lived in a coach house of a mansion on the lake at Sheridan Road and Milburn (the house is no longer there) because their father was the groundskeeper for the Bridge family.

Joan remembers an incident from when she was in kindergarten and trying to walk home in the "wrong" direction--no Black child would be walking toward the lake after school. She also remembers vividly seeing houses being moved from the white side of Evanston to the fifth ward when she was a young girl, and she tells me about that too.

Listen in ...

DE: Tell me about how you got to Evanston? How did your family get to Evanston?

JH: I was born in Cook County Hospital but my mother lived here in Evanston. After nine days she came home. They kept people nine days then. And she came home to 1930 Dodge. That was my first home. I’m the youngest of three children. I have a sister who’s three years older, Ethelyn Baker. And my brother who was two years old, Bennett Johnson. I call him my ‘big bother.’ And then there’s me. I’m two years younger than Bennett.

DE: So your mother lived in Evanston before you were born?

JH: No. She and my father were together and they lived in Chicago in Englewood. But they split up in April and my mother came to Evanston and I was born in May. This was in the 1930s.

DE: So what made them move here?

JH: Because my grandmother and her sister, had purchased a house here in Evanston. My great aunt was a widow and she had five boys. She was married to a minister at a church in New York. He was in an accident and was injured but he lived for a while.


When he died, she moved to Evanston because her oldest brother worked here in Evanston. So he helped her to get the house and moved her boys in, and my grandmother was a live-in domestic and on her days off, every Thursday and every other Sunday, she had to have someplace to come, you know. She worked with the family of James Pearl Prindle, II, in Winnetka.

DE: What was the house on Dodge like?

JH: It was a two-bedroom house. But it was a bungalow. They fixed two rooms in the basement for the boys to sleep in. And all the women slept upstairs in the bedrooms.

DE: So six boys downstairs. And then you, your mother ...

JH: … and my aunt and grandmother, and oh, at the time I was born, I had a great-great aunt who was still living and was born a slave. And when I was too young to go to school, she and I would be home and everybody else would be either in school or at work. And I never, never could get her to tell me anything about slavery.

DE: What was her name?

JH: Mary Garth.

DE: She was your mom’s grandmother?

JH: No. She really wasn’t. But my great aunt--the one who bought the house with my grandmother--when she was born, her mother died. And Aunt Mary was the sister to my great aunt. So it was you know still all in the family.

DE: And how did you find out that she’d been born into slavery?

JH: Well, everybody knew it. She just wouldn’t talk about it. She really didn’t do a lot of talking, and when I’d be home with her she would be cooking and humming. But she really wouldn’t talk about much of anything, you know.

She worshipped the ground I walked on and my youngest cousin, she worshipped the ground he walked on, because we were the youngest. On Sundays after church we’d come home and have dinner. And then around 6 o’clock we’d have dessert. You know there would be pie or cake or whatever they made that day for dessert.

And my cousin and I would get the first slice of whatever it was, and it would be a BIG slice. And she would give Bennett a little bitty slice, only because he complained that she gave my cousin Everett and I a big slice. And Everett and I enjoyed that position.

DE: What did it feel like at the time when you were growing up in terms of racism and discrimination? What was your experience as an African American young person growing up in Evanston in the 30s and 40s?

JH: When I was four years old my father and mother got back together again because he got a job working as a groundskeeper on an estate. And that estate was at Milburn and Sheridan. There was a water plant there. And the water plant had a reservoir, a little hill that they kept water in so they could test it and stuff like that. And then all the rest of the area was an estate. Twenty-room house. My father was the groundskeeper. They had a garden, they had all kinds of fruit trees.

And there was a fence that had all kinds of vines with grapes, all kinds of grapes, gooseberries, currants. My father had a vegetable garden and they grew practically everything in that garden.

DE: And who was the family, do you know?

JH: Bridge, George Bridge. And he was a stockbroker I think.

DE: So your parents got back together and you all lived on the estate.

JH: Yeah, and we lived in, there was a five-car garage and we lived in a four-room apartment up over that. And as kids, Mr. Bridge let us have access to the grounds. We could go anywhere and do anything we wanted, We had a private beach.

Now I was four, so I hadn’t started school yet. But Ethelyne and Bennett were in school. All we had to do was go right across the grass and go into .. remember Kendall College .. that originally was Orrington School.

Anyway, all we had to do was walk across this way and go to school. But because we were Black we couldn’t go to Orrington because we were children of servants and we couldn’t be in the same school with the kids our parents were working for. So we had to walk to Noyes School [now the Noyes Cultural Arts Center], which was 10 blocks away. And back then, we went home for lunch and came back.

DE: So you walked 10 blocks to school, 10 blocks back for lunch, and 10 blocks back to school.

JH: My father went to see Mr. Skiles. He was the superintendent at the time, and he was the one that told my father why we couldn’t go to Orrington, and that was the reason given. And we knew it was because we were Black. Mr. Bridge arranged for my father to see Mr. Skiles because otherwise he never would’ve got a chance to see him. He was in our corner, yes. But mind you I was only four, so I was still at home.

DE: So tell me more...you lived in this four-room apartment above the garage ...

JH: There was our living room, Bennett slept on the couch that came out, then my mother and father slept in a room. Then there was a dining room and there was a kitchen. And my sister and I slept in a bedroom. And then there was a big sun porch on the back that we used to sleep in the summertime when it got too hot because we didn’t have, didn’t hardly have fans, let alone air conditioning, so we slept out there.

DE: How long did you live there for?

JH: When Mr. Bridge died, his wife, it was his second wife and stepmother to his adult children, and they didn’t like her. So they ended up selling the estate. So then we ended up leaving. I was nine when that happened. So we were there like five years.

DE: So by this time you were going to school. So when you left, were you sad?

JH: Yes. I mean, we had a great life there. You know there’s just no getting around it. You walk down to the beach when we wanted to and go swimming if we wanted.

They had a boat, a rowboat, and I don’t know where they kept that boat normally, but they brought the boat to the beach and left it there with no oars because they were waiting to go to dry docks. And our cousins, the ones that lived on Dodge, used to come over to play with us because we had the beach.

DE: And that was fine with the Bridges?

JH: Oh yeah. And one of them came over, yeah it was Everett. Talked us into taking the boat out with no oars.

DE: So what happened?

JH: Floated, floated way out. And basically my father didn’t worry, he just kind of kept an eye on us and he was doing his work. And then he realized he couldn’t, didn’t see us, didn’t know where we were, then he started looking and realized the boat was gone and knew it was us. And he had to swim out. He was a great swimmer.

By the time he got to us, boy, he was so tired and he hung onto the side of the boat for the longest, to catch his breath and to gain strength to bring us back in. Swimming and pulling the boat.

DE: And was he angry?

JH: He made us all go to bed. And he tried, he got a strap to whip Bennett and Everett, but Everett got up under the bed and he couldn’t get to him.

DE: So you all leave the estate. Where did you go to?

JH: Back to 1930 Dodge.

DE: So let’s talk a bit about your memory of houses being moved.

JH: Okay. I went to Noyes School from kindergarten through third grade. And then after that I came to Foster which is now Family Focus Evanston [2010 Dewey], and I went there from fourth grade through sixth grade. Then I went to Nichols Middle School for seventh and eighth grade and then to ETHS for one year. Then we moved to Chicago and I graduated from Marshall High School.

So when I was in fourth grade we lived, this is our house [shows me on a virtual "map"]. And this is Foster Street and this is Foster School. So I walked down Foster Street and was really a block and a half I’ll say, to school.

And we knew about -- the parents discussed stuff in front of us and explained stuff -- so we kind if knew what was going on, you know. That’s if we asked questions. I was always the one to ask questions. But the other thing was we also knew some of the kids whose houses were being moved.

Now, little quick history. After the Chicago fire, the rich white people who had servants moved to Evanston and brought their servants with them. And the servants of course didn’t live with them, most of them, they lived somewhere in Chicago but it was a distance that they had to travel in order to get to their house in Chicago. Well, for them to travel from their house to Evanston was going to be too much.

So they purchased houses for these servants and the houses were either next door or nearby. So consequently they didn’t have that far to go to work. And it became, it was so many of, I won’t say so many because three can be too many for some white people, you know what I mean.

But it got to the point where it was disturbing to some of the white residents that all these Black people were living nearby.

In other words, they had Black neighbors that they really didn’t want. It was around Haven School and Prairie in that area. Right there at Green Bay and McCormick and kind of over in that area where Grant Street and Noyes and Payne, you know what I’m talking about. And I got some other people that could, who were directly impacted with this move.

So they started selecting these houses from that area to move over to the west side where we are. They brought the house, the one I remember, down Foster Street. So I’m like eight or nine, you know, I’m in fourth grade.

And of course our parents told us, don’t go in the houses, you know because people’s belongings were in there. But it was unsteady because you know, kids get in and be jumping and playing and stuff.

You know we respected the people’s houses and didn’t go in. And they must have moved them at night because the houses would be sitting in the middle of the street and we had to walk past them to get to school. So I remember very well, you know, and it apparently was a slow-moving thing because it took a couple of days for this one house that I remember to get down the block.

DE: So you were just walking to school and you’d see this house on wheels. This house fully furnished with people’s stuff in it.

JH: Well, we knew it was coming because they had been talking about it. Our parents had been talking about it. We weren’t shocked when we saw it. We were and we weren’t, I’ll put it that way. Cause it was just surprising to see this, I mean as a kid. We knew fully what it was. And we’d been informed about what to do and what not to do. And it was only there a day or two.

DE: And it was an African American family’s house?

JH: Right.

DE: Did you ever know those families?

JH: No, I didn’t my parents, the adults knew, but we didn’t. I did not, I’ll put it that way.

DE: How many houses do you think that happened to?

JH: It was several of them, I don’t know how many. I only remember that one coming down Foster. Some others went down other streets, but you know depending upon where they were taking it to.

DE: And so when you saw it, you didn’t actually see people moving the house, you just saw it sitting there on wheels?

JH: Right, because they apparently moved it at night. You know, they didn’t want people around when the house was being moved.

DE: So where was the family when the house was moved?

JH: I don’t know. That’s something I hadn’t thought about that.

DE: And were they told their house was being moved?

JH: Oh yeah. It was over a long period of time because they were, everybody was talking about it because everybody knew about it. But you know –

DE: Was it a big news story?

JH: Well, it was a word of mouth thing. I don’t know. I wasn’t reading the paper then. And I stopped reading the funnies when I was 12.

DE: And the reason for the move was ...

JH: To make a ghetto. To make a ghetto. They didn’t want Black, to get the black folks out of the white neighborhood and make a Black one. Now several of the streets like Laurel, Leland … you got the canal and then you got three or four streets coming back from the canal. And all of those streets were vacant. And some of the houses were put on plots on those streets where there were no houses.

DE: And do you remember it being vacant and then houses moved?

JH: Yes. And then in the meantime, the other spots that were vacant they built new houses on them. So you had some Blacks who didn’t, I don’t know, they may not have brought their house and end up putting them in a brand new house. You’ll have to talk to the people who were you know that impacted.

DE: So, what was it like growing up Black in Evanston?

JH: Because I learned about being Black when it came to going to kindergarten, it was just everyday stuff to me. But I never will forget my first day of school.

I was in kindergarten at Noyes. And the kindergarten kids always come out first, right? So I came out, and all the kids start walking home. And I didn’t know what to do because I came to school with my sister and brother and they weren’t out yet.

So I was standing around and so the teacher said, ‘Well Joan, where do you live?’ And I think I told her the address, the address was 570 Milburn. But that number doesn’t exist anymore [the house is no longer standing].

So anyway, I said, ‘I came with my sister and brother.’ She said, ‘Well don’t you know the way home?’ I said, ‘Yes, I know the way home.’ She said, ‘Well why don’t you just go on and walk home?’

So when we came out of school, all the Black kids went this way, and I was the only one going this way. And she said, ‘Joan, no, no, no, don’t go that way, you want to go this way.’ Because I’m headed toward the lake. So I said, ‘No, I live this way. ‘No you don’t, you live this way,’ she said. I said … okay. So I didn’t argue with her, I walked a ways this way and watched for her to go back in school.

DE: You were five years old.

JH: Yeah. And then I ran ... till I got out of sight of school and walked home.

DE: And you knew how to get home?

JH: Yeah, I knew where I was going. I don’t know how I crossed Sheridan Road, but I was able to cross Sheridan Road.

DE: How did you feel? Angry? Confused?

JH: No, no. I was more focused on how to get home, you know. So I told my folk what happened and they told me in future to wait for my sister and brother. The next day, I waited for my sister and brother. And so the teacher waited with me till they came out. And then we started walking this way and I’m in between them holding their hand and I’m looking back at her. I know she was confused.

So I told my father about it and he gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers, that was the other thing we had a lot of flowers. He gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers to take to the teacher.

DE: Looking back on it all, and at the community in Evanston now, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed?

JH: Well, let me tell you one thing that did happen when we were living on the lake. You know after, one day we got kind of bored of just playing on the ground, that was the same thing we did every day. And so Bennett said, ‘Let’s go and walk down Central Street.’

So we did fine up until we got to Green Bay Road. And on the west side of Green Bay Road is where all the shops and stuff were. Where people did shopping. I don’t remember what was on the east side of Central Street.

But anyway, we walked across Green Bay Road and shortly after we walked a way on the west side of Green Bay Road, a policeman came up to us and said, ‘Hey! Where you kids going?’ Now mind you, I might have been six or seven. Bennett was nine and Ethelyne was 10. So you know what are kids that age going to do?

Fortunately my father had given us Mr. Bridge’s name. We didn’t have the phone number but back then everybody had their phone numbers in the book. So we were able to give the policeman enough information that he found out all the necessary information he needed, and he told us, ‘Okay, you kids go on back home and don’t come back.’

DE: He said don’t come back?

JH: I’m going to add that, because I’m sure he said that. Because the white people did not want Blacks shopping on Central Street. And there are a lot of blacks who do not, those that were raised here, do not go to Central Street now, right today. And that’s why, because of that.

When it comes to watching the 4th of July parade--when you cross Green Bay Road to east Central Street, there they are. Now the ones you see on the west side of Green Bay Road watching the parade--they’re newbies. They don’t know the history.

DE: Do you feel a pride in your community? Do you feel it’s cohesive?

JH: I’m proud of Evanston, yeah. It’s a great place to live and I don’t know if I really want to live anywhere else.


DE: I know you're very involved in the community. Tell me about that.


JH: Well I’ve always been involved in the community. Cause my folks were like that. They were always involved.


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